Saturday, October 15, 2011

An Evening with Haskell Wexler - Chicago International Film Festival

Haskell Wexler (Photo ©Tom Hyland)

It isn't often one gets to meet a legend, but that's exactly what took place when I joined several dozen other cinema enthusiasts at the Chicago International Film Festival this past Thursday, as we gathered to listen to Haskell Wexler talk about his lengthy career in film. 

For those readers not familiar with his name, Wexler has made a name for himself first and foremost as one of the greatest cinematographers to ever work in Hollywood. A two-time Academy Award winner (Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf, 1966 and Bound For Glory, 1976), he was named as one of the ten most influential cinematographers of all time by the members of the International Cinematographers Guild. Wexler has also made a name for himself as a director, most notably for Medium Cool, shot during the riots at the 1968 Democratic Convention in Chicago. Finally, he has been a political acitivist for decades, rallying out against government policies he believed were wrong. 

Wexler was born in Chicago in 1922, so this was a fitting return home for this great craftsman. The audience consisted of film lovers such as I who have followed his work for decades as well as many beginning filmmakers from nearby Columbia College; these students in their 20s, know Wexler from his work, but are too young to recall the times in which he embraced his craft. Wexler also acknowledged a few in the crowd from Francis Parker school, which he attended as a teen.

The evening stated with a montage of film clips, from a little seen documentary called The Bus, about the 1963 civil rights march on Washington, D.C to One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest (he shot most of the film, but was replaced before completion) to Latino, a 1985 film he directed. Several other short film clips were also shown at various moments, interspersed with Wexler's responses to questions from the audience.

One audience member asked Wexler if he preferred working on feature films or documentaries. While he replied that it all depended on the project, he did say that "With a documentary, you are closer to being its creator." This immediately led into his thoughts on the current protests being held in several cities across the country (Occupy Wall Street). "Why do we live in a sense of denial? We don't want to respond to things." Wexler mentioned "the human connection," adding, "We all want the same things and we are human."

The Thomas Crown Affair

Wexler talked about specific technique in his films, from the camera spinning around Steve McQueen and Faye Dunaway after the chess game in The Thomas Crown Affair (the camera was on a circular track that ringed the two actors) to photographing Liz Taylor in Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf ("I made Liz Taylor look pretty good for the part.") to his use of the Steadicam in 1976s Bound for Glory, which was the first ever implementation of that technology in a feature film.

He also recalled some wonderful stories about Hollywood. When he won his first Oscar for Virginia Woolf, he thought to himself as he was walking to the stage that this might be the only time he could speak to millions of people. This was in the spring of 1967 as the hippie movement and anti Vietnam war protests were just starting to make their marks. Wexler in his acceptance speech said, "I hope we can use our art for peace and love." Sounds innocent enough, but he mentioned that soon afterwards, several members of the Academy asked him why he used those "revolutionary" words at the ceremony. Apparently, Wexler opined, those two words are dangerous to a lot of people!

He also told the story of how actress Louise Fletcher on the set of Cuckoo's Nest, wanted to know why Haskell had talked about "her fat face." Wexler was puzzled and told Fletcher that he had never said "her fat face" and besides, how could she hear him as he was across the set at the time, speaking quietly to an assistant.

"I read lips," was Fletcher's response; indeed she does as her parents were both deaf (upon winning the Oscar as Best Actress for this film, she thanked her parents in sign language). Wexler told her, "I said 'your flat face.'", a reference to flat lighting, when all of her face is equally lit. This story brought down the house!

Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf

At 89, Haskell Wexler is full of life, humor, wit and plenty of opinions. Toward the end of the evening, one young filmmaking student asked him what advice he would give to someone who is getting started in the business. Wexler first told him that he should have another source of income, but then gave a more direct answer, saying, "You have to have a life. Don't just watch other people's movies and television shows." He also told the students that at the end of the day, this is a business. "You have to shoot what they tell you to shoot." He added one final point; "Good shooters just don't go out and get what they want. I want what I get."

One final insight into Haskell Wexler's life from this wonderful evening. Commenting on his outspoken political beliefs as well as his choice of films on which he has worked, he commented, "I don't really know my motives. Sometimes I blame it on my mother. My mother told me to be a nice guy."


  1. "You have to have a life. Don't just watch other people's movies and television shows."

    This is what the people here have been telling me constantly ever since I first arrived at film school in August. It's scary to hear Wexler validating it, too, but he's right after all. It makes me feel a little guilty because I spend more time watching movies than making them!

    I really need to check out Wexler's directorial work; I've heard of Medium Cool before, but have never actually bothered to check it out. Love that story he told about Louise Fletcher. And it's a little incredible that the Academy would be offended by such a peaceful acceptance speech.

    Great piece, Tom -- I envy you for getting to see Wexler in person. At 89, he still sounds quite intelligent and wise. Maybe he's got another 5-10 years in him.

  2. Adam:

    Thanks for the comment and all the kind words. Yes, at 89 Haskell is still as sharp as ever and a very gracious man. He had all sorts of advice for young filmmakers- how nice that such a legend takes time to help the new generation!

    I am so fortunate to have finally met him. I hope you'll get the opportunity one of these days as well.